Childhood obesity crisis spurs call to action against Big Food

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An enormous study of 128.9 million people revealed that the global number of overweight and obese children is alarmingly high and all major health organisations are calling for action. News articles highlight the urgency of the situation and reveal the full extent of the crisis.

If current trends continue, by 2022 there will be more obese children than underweight ones for the first time in history.

While in 1975 there were five million obese girls, in 2016 there were 50 million. And the number is even higher for boys – rising from six million in 1975 to 74 million in 2016. Four in ten youngsters aged five to 19 are clinically obese or overweight. In the UK, more than four million children are obese or overweight.

Professor Ezzati, the lead author of the study, says: “The trend predicts a generation of children and adolescents growing up obese and also malnourished. We need ways to make healthy, nutritious food more available at home and school, especially in poor families and communities, and regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods.”

Public health efforts have been focussed mostly on sugary drinks and processed foods full of ‘empty’ calories – ie high in fat and sugar and poor in essential nutrients. But we need a major overhaul of the entire food system and marketing.

Cheap unhealthy foods and shameless Big Food companies spending millions on advertising of their poor-quality products are certainly to blame but so are the countless foods promoted as healthier options yet brimming with fat or sugar. There’s no point encouraging people to avoid sugar when they’re being sold buckets of fried chicken and milkshakes packing more saturated fat in one serving than is the maximum recommended daily intake!

What we need is a tax on animal products and sugar-laden foods and severe restrictions on Big Food marketing and advertising. It’s for a good reason that many health experts say that if a food has an advert, you most likely don’t need it. After all, there’s no big money to be made from advertising fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and nuts and seeds – yet these are the cornerstones of a healthy diet and inexpensive.

Being overweight or obese is associated with increased fat levels in the blood, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and the risk of premature death. It’s certainly not something to gloss over. Children allowed or even encouraged to build unhealthy habits from a young age are being set up for many health problems and face difficulties changing their lifestyle later in life.

It’s been shown time and again that vegan diets lead to a healthy body weight even without portion restriction and they are the most effective in long-term weight management. Apart from that, they also always score high on the healthy eating scale in diet studies – thanks to the main vegan food groups also being the healthiest. It’s true many junk foods are suitable for vegans too but most vegans learn a thing or two about nutrition along the way so tend to make better food choices as a result. And a vegan hot dog or cake is still healthier than the animal-based versions!

Overall, vegan diets provide all the essential nutrients whilst being lower in fat and higher in fibre than all other diets and reduce your risk of many diseases including diabetes, heart disease and several cancers. With the rapidly growing global population, plant-based diets will soon be a must from the sustainability perspective too.

It’s about time public health institutions stopped tiptoeing around the issue and started recommending fully plant-based diets to everyone. It would be a winning scenario for everyone – our children, health, the planet and, of course, animals too.